The civil jury trial is a fundamental part of our democracy and has been a part of our country since its inception. Yet, many people do not realize that, in present-day America, civil jury trials are exceedingly rare. Statistics from Ottawa County prove this point. From 2012 to 2016, 2,082 civil cases were resolved through the Ottawa County Circuit Court. Of those 2,082 dispositions, less than 1% were resolved by way of a jury trial. In 2016, a grand total of one civil case was resolved by an Ottawa County jury. And Ottawa County is not alone. Courts across Michigan and the country report that only a small percentage of cases are actually resolved by a jury.
This past summer, I had the opportunity to do what only a few lawyers get to do: try a civil case in front of an Ottawa County jury. In the case, our client was seriously injured while working at a business. Through no fault of his own and out of nowhere, over 700 pounds of flattened cardboard fell on top of him while he was walking through the business’ storage facility. Our client completely broke his right hip and required immediate hip replacement surgery. He was lucky to be alive. He endured months of therapy, never returned to work, and is still limited in his ability to move.
As we worked up the case, we discovered that the business stacked three “bales” of flattened cardboard, with each bale weighing over 350 pounds. Stacking three bales on top of each other, the stack reached over 14 feet high and weighed over 1,000 pounds. The business used cracked pallets as part of the stack, placed the stack directly next to a walkway, and used no shelving or banding to ensure that it didn’t fall over. Making matters worse, the business immediately disposed of the pallets and boxes after the incident. The defendant-business and its insurance company, however, refused to provide anything reasonable to compensate our client for his injuries and loss of income, forcing us to ask a jury of Ottawa County community members to decide if the business should pay and, if so, how much.
The jury pool consisted of individuals from all over the County, from Coopersville, to Grand Haven, to Holland. Those in the jury pool came from various backgrounds and jobs, from a small business owner, to a pastor, to a basketball coach. And while Ottawa County is known for being conservative, we believed that the seven-person jury ultimately selected would view the case fairly. After two days of trial, the jury issued its verdict in favor of our client for $360,000, three times as much as the defendant and its insurer ever offered. Because of the amount of the verdict, the defendant and its insurer were also required to pay a large portion of our client’s attorney fees, resulting in a final judgment against the defendant for over $415,000. After the trial, the judge stated that the jury “nailed it.”
Most cases settle before going to trial, and most cases probably should settle. But some cases, rare as they may be, simply require the parties to present their case to a jury of fellow community members for them to decide. From our recent experience, the jury trial remains a vital and important part of our justice system.More Case Studies